“Is not he a man”? Sonia Gandhi was said to have exclaimed at a meeting of the party’s Central Election Committee (CEC) earlier last week. There was a deathly silence in the room. “Aren’t there corruption charges against him?
Sonia, according to the reports, was referring to Shanti Dhariwal, whose name came up for consideration for a ticket for the coming Rajasthan assembly polls. Rahul Gandhi interjected, saying he too had heard many complaints against Dhariwal in Kota, during his Bharat Jodo Yatra.
What was left unsaid was how Dhariwal’s name had made it to the table. Along with Mahesh and Dharmendra Rathaur, Dhariwal is seen as congress chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s man. In September 2002 crisis, when Gehlot, once seen as a stout Gandhi family loyalist, scuttled the party high command’s plan to replace him with Sachin Pilot, the three had stood by CM. The fact that the CEC was debating Dhariwal showed Gehlot’s growing clout in Rajasthan. By insisting that he be axed, the high command was trying to restore some of his battered authority.
While Dhariwal, Rathaur and Joshi may not make it to the final list, the fact that Gehlot intransigence against benching of MLAs has meant that the congress has come out with only 33 names so far, out of 200, reflect this tussle. The lion’s share by all accounts—and this is significant part— will still be decided by the CM. There was little the Gandhi family could do in 2022—or now.
As one travels across Rajasthan, earlier last week, this came up repeatedly, with more than one person marvelling at how Gehlot had “got away” saying this exposed the Family’s “helplessness” as nothing else could have.
To many, it is a sign of Gehlot’s growing “strength” — including turning down an offer to stand for the congress presidency and besting the BJP’s plan to topple his government in 2020. “Dekho Dilli ko aankh dikha dee (see, he has shown up Delhi),” they said.
Others said Gehlot had demonstrated that he was “Rajneeti ka jadugar (a magician of politics)”, who knew how to turn tables on his opponents. Jadugar is a term which is often used for Gehlot, whose father practiced magic.
This image of a “strong leader” holds Gehlot in good stead. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi having set the template for a dabagg, damdaar neta (fearless, powerful leader). So, the congress in Rajasthan today is not about Rahul Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge and, even, Sachin Pilot despite his following amongst youth and influence in several districts. The congress is now seen as synonymous with Gehlot—with many suggesting he may buck anti-incumbency. Even BJP’s supports say “Inhone party ko takkar ki sthiti maen toh la diya hai (he has made it a contest issue)”.
A Jat farmer in Nehron ki Dhani village in Sikar district says: “Normally, by the time the elections are declared, we know which way the wind is blowing. This time there is going to be fight”.
“The congress is likely to win 70-80 seats,” says a BJP supporter in Sikar town. “There is a 10 % chance that the Congress may just scrape through,” adds a political observer in Jaipur.
A 32-year-old hotel employee who says he will vote for the BJP, also acknowledges Gehlot’s “good work in health and education”. “But on the other side is rashtravaad (nationalism). I will choose nationalism”.
A street vendor who sells baked goods from a cart blames Modi for the rise of big retailers. “Hamare pet pe laat padhi hai” (We have been kicked in our stomach). This time I will not vote for Modi.”
The sense that Gehlot may have stemmed the congress side is a change from last year, when the party’s defeat was seen as a given. Even congressmen then talked of internal surveys giving the party 20-25 seats.
In 2018, the Congress’s lead had been narrowed, getting (two short of a simple majority) to BJP’s 72. The vote share difference between parties was just above 1%. Within a few months, the BJP had sent the Congress packing in the Lok Sabha polls, winning 24 of 25 seats in the state with ally RLP taking 1. (IPA Service)